Unifying Around Negative and Positive Emotions
Greta Sloan, Associate

Humans are wired to connect based on shared emotion. Being angry about the same thing brings people together as does sharing a deep sense of purpose. How we unify together based on shared emotion matters just as much on a small level as it does a macro-level, as unifying around negative emotions looks very different than unifying around positive emotions. 

When we experience negative emotions, we are driven to act in certain predictable and specific ways. These actions are linked with the evolutionary drive to protect ourselves, protect others, and preserve our social ties. Here are some examples of emotions and the actions we are driven to take when we feel them [1]:

Fear: Escape
Anger: Attack
Disgust: Expel
Shame: Disappear
Sadness: Withdraw

Interestingly, we are also very good at distinguishing these emotions from each other on people's faces. Anger has lowered brows, pressed lips, and bigger eyes; fear has higher brows, open eyes, and slightly open mouth; sadness has lowered mouth corners raised inner brows; disgust has upper lip raised, nose wrinkled, chin raised [1]. 

Image source: Mediating the Expression of Emotion in Educational CVEs: An Experimental Study, Fabri, Hobbs & Moore


Negative emotions narrow our thinking and actions. When we feel angry about something, we are driven to attack. When we unify around anger, we are driven to attack with others.  Little other actions emerge as possibilities for us, and those we unify with, when we feel anger especially at a high intensity. The same applies for other negative emotions. 

While negative emotions narrow our thinking and actions, positive emotions do something quite different: they broaden us and guide us into the unspecific. Positive emotions pull us into rich, creative, connective open space. 

Consider the following [1]:

Joy: play
Affection: approach
Interest: Explore
Contentment: Savor
Relief: Cessation of Vigilance
Love: All of the above

The actions linked to positive emotions are bled together; they overlap, they relax us, promote exploration, and encourage us to approach the unknown. It is difficult to distinguish positive emotions from one another on people's faces [1]. Happiness looks a bit like affection, which looks a bit like love, which looks a bit like relief, and so forth. 

Image source: Differentiating Duchenne from non-Duchenne Smiles using active appearance models

Positive emotions do not just refer to happiness, joy, affection, and other emotions not necessary touched by the pains of injustice or trauma. They can also include purpose, connection, community in tragedy, empathy, forgiveness, and courage. When we experience these emotions, and when we are connected by them, we are able to move into a rich, open, connective space. It is not clear what actions will follow, but we are able to open up to the possibilities. 

Otto Scharmer, founder of the Presencing Institute, comments that, ". . .the main axis of political conflict is no longer between the left and the right, as it was in the last century, but between open and closed" [2]. Scharmer goes on to say, "'Closed' is a mindset that amplified the triad of Fear, Hate, and Ignorance. It is a mindset that manifests in the form of five behaviors: blinding (not seeing reality); de-sensing (not empathizing with others); absencing (losing connection to one's highest future); blaming others (an inability to reflect); and destroying (destruction of nature, of relationships, or self." 

When we unify around negative emotion, we experience blinding, de-sensing, absencing, blaming others, and destroying. As our global politics have trended towards authoritarianism and nationalism, the leaders have pulled the negative emotional strings, creating unification in support of their policies that derive from negative emotions such as fear and anger. Their unification strategies have been powerful, but they are tearing countries apart in the process through promoting attack and fear of the "other". Much of this is bound up with pride and the need to be right at the expense of the truth (blinding, de-sensing).

Promoting unification through positive emotion does not promote fragmentation as in the case of negative emotion. Being bound by positive emotion does not make people collectively begin to hate their neighbor or exclude their friends. Rather, connecting through positive emotion allows us to fully sense a situation, to not be in denial of its truth but rather to mindfully see it as it is. It allows us to open us to being surprised and changed; perhaps what we observe is different than our previous conception that we had clung so tightly to.

If we are to move towards finding solutions to the real, pressing problems facing us here and now, we must move from blinding, de-sensing, blaming others, and inciting to opening up, seeing, sensing, and co-creating. The challenge is to unify not around emotions that narrow us, such as fear and anger, but rather to unify around purpose, community that comes from shared struggle, justice, inclusion, empathy, and courage. Countering "closed" with "closed" is the new "eye for an eye" in a fragmented world. If we counter the "closed" with the "open",  perhaps the closed will become more open. This change, of course, starts with ourselves. 

[1] Ong, Anthony, "Positive Emotions", Cornell University, Ithaca, February 1, 2016.
[2] Sharmer, Otto, "Axial Shift: The Decline of Trump, the Rise of the Greens, and the New Coordinates of Societal Change", November 7, 2018.

Image cover: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/02/hard-feelings-sciences-struggle-to-define-emotions/385711/